A THANKSGIVING POST

My old colleague, the legendary British journalist and drunk Henry Fairlie, had a favourite story about his long, lascivious love affair with America. He was walking down a suburban street one afternoon in a suit and tie, passing familiar rows of detached middle-American dwellings and lush, green Washington lawns. In the distance a small boy – aged perhaps six or seven – was riding his bicycle towards him.

And in a few minutes, as their paths crossed on the pavement, the small boy looked up at Henry and said, with no hesitation or particular affectation: “Hi.” As Henry told it, he was so taken aback by this unexpected outburst of familiarity that he found it hard to say anything particularly coherent in return. And by the time he did, the boy was already trundling past him into the distance.

In that exchange, Henry used to reminisce, so much of America was summed up. That distinctive form of American manners, for one thing: a strong blend of careful politeness and easy informality. But beneath that, something far more impressive. It never occurred to that little American boy that he should be silent, or know his place, or defer to his elder. In America, a six-year-old cyclist and a 55-year-old journalist were equals. The democratic essence of America was present there on a quiet street on a lazy summer afternoon.

Henry couldn’t have imagined that exchange happening in England – or Europe, for that matter. Perhaps now, as European – and especially British – society has shed some of its more rigid hierarchies, it could. But what thrilled him about that exchange is still a critical part of what makes America an enduringly liberating place. And why so many of us who have come to live here find, perhaps more than most native Americans, a reason to give thanks this Thanksgiving.

When I tuck into the turkey on Thursday, I’ll have three things in particular in mind. First, the country’s pathological obsession with the present. America is still a country where the past is anathema. Even when Americans are nostalgic, they are nostalgic for a myth of the future. What matters for Americans, in small ways and large, is never where you have come from – but where you are going, what you are doing now, or what you are about to become. In all the years I have lived in America – almost a decade and a half now – it never ceases to amaze me that almost nobody has ever demanded to know by what right I belong here. Almost nobody has asked what school I went to, what my family is like, or what my past contains. (In Britain I was asked those questions on a daily, almost hourly, basis.) Even when I took it on myself to be part of the American debate, nobody ever questioned my credentials for doing so. I don’t think that could ever happen in a European context (when there’s a gay American editor of The Spectator, let me know). If Europeans ever need to know why Ronald Reagan captured such a deep part of the American imagination, this is surely part of the answer. It was his reckless futurism (remember star wars and supply-side economics?) and his instinctive, personal generosity.

Second, I’m thankful for the American talent for contradiction. The country that sustained slavery for longer than any other civilised country is also the country that has perhaps struggled more honestly for the notion of racial equality than any other. The country that has a genuine public ethic of classlessness also has the most extreme economic inequality in the developed world. The country that is most obsessed with pressing the edge of modernity also has the oldest intact constitution in the world. The country that still contains a powerful religious right has also pushed the equality of homosexuals further than ever before in history. A country that cannot officially celebrate Christmas (it would erase the boundary between church and state) is also one of the most deeply religious nations on the planet. Americans have learnt how to reconcile the necessary contradictions not simply because their country is physically big enough to contain them, but because it is spiritually big enough to contain them. Americans have learnt how to reconcile the necessary contradictions of modern life with a verve and a serenity few others can muster. It is a deeply reassuring achievement.

Third, I’m thankful because America is, above all, a country of primary colours. Sometimes the pictures Americans paint are therefore not as subtle, or as elegant, or even as brilliant as masterpieces elsewhere. But they have a vigour and a simplicity that is often more viscerally alive. Other nations may have become bored with the Enlightenment, or comfortable in post-modern ennui. Americans find such postures irrelevant. Here the advertisements are cruel, the battles are stark and the sermons are terrifying. And here, more than anywhere else, the most vital of arguments still go on. Does God exist? Are the races equal? Can the genders get along? Americans believe that these debates can never get tired, and that their resolution still matters, because what happens in America still matters in the broader world. At its worst, this can bespeak a kind of arrogance and crudeness. But at its best, it reflects a resilient belief that the great questions can always be reinvented and that the answers are always relevant. In the end, I have come to appreciate this kind of naivety as a deeper form of sophistication. Even the subtlest of hues, after all, are merely primary colours mixed.

At the end of November each year this restless, contradictory and simple country finds a way to celebrate itself. The British, as befits a people at ease with themselves, do not have a national day. When the French do, their insecurity shows. Even America, on the fourth of July, displays a slightly neurotic excess of patriotism. But on Thanksgiving, the Americans resolve the nationalist dilemma. They don’t celebrate themselves, they celebrate their good fortune. And every November, as I reflect on a country that can make even an opinionated Englishman feel at home, I know exactly how they feel.

“My America,” first published November 24, 1996, Sunday Times of London

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A WINTER’S TALE

I guess I passed a milestone this week. As the winter closes in, Provincetown gets a little bleaker each day. It’s truly odd living in a resort town. From 50,000 inhabitants in the summer to 3,000 or so in the winter, it almost becomes a different town as autumn ends. The cafes close down; the stores shut; there are times when I almost feel as if I’m on Survivor, as each friend or acquaintance gets kicked off the island. To add to the weirdness, they’re currently constructing the town’s first real sewer – so much of the main street is dug up, with sand and soil in heaps and tracks all over town. Squint your eyes and the winding, uneven, muddied street could be of a century ago. But the solitude is also intoxicating. As I write this, I’m looking out at the dark bay, a lighthouse blinking in the distance, in my room on a wharf which has just had its water supply turned off to keep the pipes from freezing over. The boyfriend, beagle and I now live in a friend’s house nearby, with water and a fireplace. I make a short walk each morning to the water’s edge to begin the work day. It’s simple living – but I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to live and work this way. And after twelve years of continuous living in Washington, it’s healthy to take a break, to get some distance. When January comes, even the boyfriend will have to leave and we’ll resume the long-distance thing. But I’ve decided to try and stick it out here by myself. I have a few friends still around, a dog, a fireplace, more books than I could possibly read, and cable television and DSL. More and more people are living here in the winter and I don’t feel like a true townie in any sense until I’ve lost my Ptown winter virginity and stayed through the dark months. Besides, I’m going to be forty next year (gulp) and some solitude – which is different than loneliness – can only do me good. With the blog, it’s also impossible to feel that lonely. Which is why, today, I’d like to say thanks to all of you for making this whole enterprise possible and coming back day after day to check in. Have a great Thanksgiving.

IDIOCY OF THE WEEK: My take on the West’s apallingly mealy-mouthed response to the Muslim Miss World riots is now up on Salon.

JOE CONASON AND CHARLIE BROWN: Reading the pristine partisanship of Joe Conason is always an enjoyable experience. But reading him yesterday called to mind the old Charlie Brown and Lucy cartoon strip. Charlie Brown knows Lucy’s going to snatch the ball away at the last moment but he still kicks. Same with Conason and the other members of the cocoon left. He still doesn’t know why Bush is popular. He’s even reverted to the “he’s just a nice guy” theory that bedeviled the Left under Reagan:

Where have we heard this all before? When Ronald Reagan was president and then won a landslide reelection, the voters felt a similar ambivalence: liked the man, disliked his ideology and agenda. A reader explained this recurring, baffling phenomenon: “Americans usually vote for the friendly guy – Ike vs. the intellectual Stevenson, Truman over Dewey, gush Bush not bore Gore, Reagan over naggin’, JFK over Nixon, Carter over Ford…. It is a bit like those high school class [presidential] elections – the vote goes to the nice, social type, not the socialist …”

Memo to Joe: don’t you think it might have a teensy-weensy bit to do with the fact that the country is at war and most voters approve of Bush’s handling of it? And don’t you think it might also have something to do with the fecklessness of the opposition (as you’ve admitted before) and even, God help us, the tax cut which Democrats want to take away from people? Oh well. Worth a try. Beside this, what does it say about some liberals’ view of ordinary voters that they honestly think people vote for someone’s personality alone? Such condescension toward the electorate is a big part of their problem. You’d expect the Left to get over this after Adlai Stevenson, but they just can’t seem to do it.

WWJD: It seems that parts of a reader’s letter I posted on the question of “What Would Jesus Drive?” were lifted from this site, OffKilter. True credit goes to Roy Rivenburg of the Los Angeles Times and Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle. I had no idea; and apologize for inadvertently running their material without credit.

SONTAG AWARD NOMINEE

“As far as Ix92m concerned itx92s equally disrespectful and abusive to have women prancing around a stage in bathing suits for cash or walking the streets shrouded in burkas in order to survive.” – Jill Nelson, MSNBC.

TIMES WATCH

“In a measure of additional concern for Democrats, Al Gore, who is the best-known Democrat who might run for president in 2004, is viewed unfavorably today by a ratio of almost two to one…. Just 19 percent said they held a favorable view of the former vice president, compared with 43 percent who had an unfavorable view.” – New York Times today. Almost?

SLATE ON RAINES: Jack Shafer says no one would accuse Howell Raines of being a demagogue. I would. But Jack does an excellent job limning the now almost comic hyping of non-news stories to fit Raines’s paleo-liberal agenda, specifically on the Augusta National Golf Club. As Jack points out, Raines is morphing the Times into a daily blog. The Mickster has sharper comments. And I’ve also noticed how Alessandra Stanley has eagerly become Raines’ dutiful copy-slave.

FROM SONTAG’S TRASH

A strange tale of rescued photography from Susan Sontag’s out-tray.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Wayne Denson, 75, a Democrat and retired optician from Kansas City, Mo., said: ‘I voted for [Gore] to start with but now that Bush got elected, I’d rather vote for Bush than Gore. Bush has got more intelligence.'” – the New York Times today.

SONTAG AWARD NOMINEE

“I abhor the targeting of civilians in any armed conflict, though why those who rain bombs on defenceless people should be allowed to lecture anyone on terrorism beats me. If there is a war, then Britain, given the complicity of Blair, could become a prime terrorist target. He is thereby potentially a bigger danger to our country than Saddam ever was.” – Jimmy Reid, The Scotsman.

THE DEATH OF RAWLS: Perhaps the most self-effacing but influential American political philosopher of recent times, John Rawls, died Sunday. Jacob Levy has a generous appreciation and some links to further reading. I agree with Levy. Although Rawls’s writing never, to my mind, plumbed the psychological, spiritual and moral depths of the great political philosophers, his bold attempt to re-think liberalism from first premises reinvigorated political theory in the 1970s and became the basis for much valuable and intricate criticism – a model for what philosophy can do.

THE ISRAELI VICTIMS: Five documented names should suffice: Haggai Sheffi, Shai Levinhar and Leon Lebor in the towers; and Danny Lewin and Alona Abraham in the planes. Dozens of Jewish-Americans also perished. It sickens me I even have to report on this easily accessible information and that a professor at a major university, with the same facts at his fingertips, chose to perpetrate an evil lie instead. One reader also had a fitting response:

My standard response to the “No Jews died at the World Trade Center” slander is “I went to David M. Weiss’ memorial service. He was Jewish. So are his kids. I’ve met them. If you don’t believe me, ask the surviving members of Rescue 1, FDNY. But stand far enough back when you ask.”

THE PURGE BEGINS: A gay seminarian kicked out not for sex but for outspokenness. The Church hierarchy believes that the way to solve this difficult question is to enforce silence on anyone who might know something about it. They keep impressing with their wisdom, don’t they?

IN THE MIDST OF WAR: The Israelis decide to translate the Federalist Papers into Hebrew and have a major conference about them. Somehow, I don’t think they used to do that in South Africa.

REPRESSION OR OPENNESS: Dan Drezner has some challenging points about which kinds of societies are most endangered by HIV and AIDS. He says those that cannot allow open debate about sexuality; those who restrict freedom of speech and open-ended scientific research; and those that can separate church and state. The alternative, he argues, is far more fragile:

Some, like [Phyllis] Schlafly, may argue that there is another option – a fundamentalist regime that actually gets its citizens to practice sexual abstinence. This could work in theory, but it’s a much less robust strategy. Once AIDS occurs in these societies, it’s impossible to stop, since the state can’t admit its existence without admitting its founding principles are being violated. Any discussion would have to admit the possibility of illicit sex and drug use. In fact, the spread of AIDS in totalitarian societies is likely to be much faster because of the state’s reluctance to ever publicly broach the topic.

I would also add a free market in pharmaceuticals. Alas, on that score, we’re headed in the opposite direction.

A KINSLEY CLASSIC

This is why, when he’s on, no-one beats Mike Kinsley for making you smile in exactly the right way:

Though hardly scientific, this tended to confirm my suspicion that people like buying books more than they like reading them. And of course, in the famous formulation (credited to Gloria Steinem, among others), writers don’t like writingx97they like having written. They like having written under the impression that this means they will be read. The whole book thing is thus based on mutual misunderstanding.